I was born with a love for music – a gift from my parents. It runs throughout both sides of my family with music of one kind or another ever-present in our home, on records, tapes, CDs, the radio, or my dad’s singing. As a matter of fact, I inherited my singing voice from my dad, sang in church choir with him, and have spent much of my life singing. I studied voice and theater in college and eventually ended up with a minor in music alongside my history degree. I heard blues and gospel at an early age through Aretha Franklin, BB King, and others, and this music genre has always stirred something deep within me. Later in life, I spent many evenings at Brackin’s Blues Club in Maryville, Tennessee, and was exposed to some amazing blues by local and regional musicians. Since that time, I’ve made it a personal quest to search out lesser-known artists and music, in original recordings, if possible. So, when I came across the Classic Appalachian Blues CD, I knew I had to have it. As I’ve listened to the unique blend of talented musicians and vocalists, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed every bit of it. And I thought Appalachia Bare was the perfect place to let anyone who reads this know about such a gem.
Music has a way of touching the soul at its core. By giving voice to both joy and sorrow, celebrating life and mourning loss, music helps us through our darkest hours. It crosses all boundaries and cultures, bringing people together the world over. The presence of music in the world is a gift and the album Classic Appalachian Blues from Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, embodies that. Barry Lee Pearson and Jeff Place have compiled a treasure trove, not only of music and musicians, but also of the unique history of Appalachian blues, “the “mountain cousin” [sic] of the Delta blues.” The album’s recordings stretch from 1945 to 1992 and include both studio and live performances. The CD comes with a forty-page booklet, packed with Appalachian blues history and a detailed description of its musical style.
By now, most people know that “The Blues,” originates from the traditional music African slaves brought to the U.S. plantations of the South and Southeast. This music has grown, changed, spread, and influenced musicians the world over without losing its roots and soul. For years, blues music was thought to have come almost exclusively out of the deltas of the Deep South. The Appalachian region is now acknowledged as a home, not only of Bluegrass, but also of its own unique style of blues. Musicians like Bessie Smith, Dinah Washington, Josh White, and James Brown all have their roots in Appalachia. Classic Appalachian Blues tells the story of Appalachian blues and presents little-known talents considered today to be among the best.
The Appalachian region’s unique traits come through on this CD in both the music and those who play it. From remote hollers to larger cities, Appalachia has long been a crossroads of peoples and cultures. Mines, lumber mills, and railroads brought workers from across the country and all over the globe to mix and mingle, more so than in other parts of the South. Children of all ethnicities in the mine and railroad camps grew up playing together despite sectarianism and Jim Crow laws, and integrated bands and crowds of listeners were not uncommon through the 20s, 30s and 40s. Howard “Louie Bluie” Armstrong, a blues multi-instrumentalist raised in LaFollette, Tennessee, recalled,
Music was one medium where blacks and whites seemed to meet on very nice ground, common ground. Even in the small towns in Tennessee and different places like that, they did integrate when it came to playing music.
This integration led to a singular combination of European and African musical styles that only Appalachia could produce.
Classic Appalachian Blues provides sixty-six minutes of great blues that only gets better the more you listen. The distinctive Piedmont guitar style, clearly influenced by the bluegrass banjo, echoes throughout the CD. In this style , the thumb picks the bassline as the fingers carry the melody, and is distinctly heard on the instrumental tracks “Hesitation Blues” by Reverend Gary Davis and “One Dime Blues” by Etta Baker. Baker (1913-2006), sadly the only female on the CD, was born in Caldwell, North Carolina, and was taught guitar and fiddle by her father and other relatives. In the first half of her life, she limited her performances to family gatherings. She and her family recorded only one album in 1956 (released as Instrumental Music of the Southern Appalachians). In her sixties, after a life raising nine children and working in the textile industry, she pursued a career in music. She was named a National Heritage Fellow in 1991 and played at Wolf Trap in Vienna, Virginia in 1992, which is also the source of the recording on this CD.
The overall tone and style of this CD is generally lighter and more jovial than the heavier Delta blues. The tempos are more upbeat and there is far less call-and-response. You’ll be moving your feet and bobbing your head to the rhythm, here. The album opens and closes with tracks by Knoxville, Tennessee native, Sticks McGhee, “My Baby’s Gone” and “Wine Blues (Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee)” that will have any party hopping. Both of McGhee’s tracks feature harmonica performances from Sonny Terry and J.C. Burris, band mates with Sticks off and on throughout their careers. Burris’ solo harmonica and vocals are also heard in “Blues Around My Bed.”
One of my favorite tracks is “Railroad Bill” by John Jackson. This guitar blues ballad immediately caught my ear and had me humming it all the time. When you learn about its source material, there’s a real irony in the light guitar riff and Jackson’s easygoing voice. Jackson wrote the song based on the story of Morris Slater. Slater became known as “Railroad Bill,” a legendary Alabama train robber in the 1890s, who killed a sheriff and was ambushed and gunned down in 1896. Apparently, none of the money or goods he stole were ever recovered, giving his story a Robin Hood aspect. The story sure makes for a great song, and it was one of Jackson’s signature tunes.
In “Hoodoo Blues” we hear some of the string band tradition widely popular through the twenties that retained its popularity in the mountains much longer. The band who wrote the song performed under a number of names, including the Tennessee Chocolate Drops and The Four Keys, and was comprised of a group who met in Knoxville in 1930. This recording is anchored by Carl Martin (mandolin/vocals), Ted Bogan (guitar), and Howard Armstrong (violin). Martin (1906-1979) was born in Big Stone Gap, Virginia, and raised in Knoxville, Tennessee. Bogan (1910-1990) was from Spartanburg, South Carolina and often played with Pink Anderson, who is also featured on this album. Howard “Louie Bluie” Armstrong (1909-2003) was born in Dayton, Tennessee and raised in LaFollette, Tennessee. The Louie Bluie Music and Arts Festival has been attracting music lovers since 2006 at the beautiful Cove Lake State Park – just a hop, skip, and a jump from LaFollette.
Classic Appalachian Blues includes blues gems from musicians not normally associated with the genre. Doc Watson recorded the blues standard “Sitting on Top of the World” in 1962. He learned many blues songs, not only from other musicians, but also from 78rpm records ordered by mail and played on a “graphophone,” as did most of the artists found on this CD. (For the young folks out there, mail-order went through the US Postal Service and was what we had before the internet, Amazon, UPS, and FedEx.) Roscoe Holcolmb (1911-1981) spent his life in and around Daisy, Kentucky, where he recorded “Mississippi Heavy Water Blues.” He worked as miner and lumber mill hand and never had professional ambitions. He recorded for the first time in the late 50s and became a regular folk festival performer in the 60s and 70s. His high, plaintive voice was synonymous with mountain music and he was the subject of John Cohen’s 1963 documentary film, The High Lonesome Sound.
All of the music on Classic Appalachian Blues is worthy of mention, but even the best written review can only give a hint of the real value. Whether you are a longtime blues fan and familiar with the likes of Peg Leg Sam Jackson, and Big Chief Ellis, or are just getting to know them, this album is well worth the price. The CD is Smithsonian Folkways’ eighteenth release overall, and their fourth blues release, in their Classic series of American music. It is available directly on their website as a CD ($11.98) or for download ($9.99). You’ll hear some great blues while supporting the Smithsonian Institute’s important work. And, while you’re there, you can check out the many other offerings they have.
Take a listen to a free sample from the CD, “See What You Done Done” by Baby Tate, and a couple of related Smithsonian Folkways videos: John Jackson’s “Steamboat Whistle” and John Cephas and Phil Wiggins playing a Piedmont blues.
Now – I’m going to get back to jamming some more blues.
**Featured Image: Armstrong (L), Martin, Bogan (R)/ Source – last fm – posted by midlifefanclub
What a fine review, Tom! I’ve texted all my sons urging them to take a look at it.
Thanks Ed, I’m glad you liked it. I sure enjoyed writing it!
Tom, this was an eye opening review. I’m a blues fan, but when I think of blues, it brings to mind R. L. Burnside in a Mississippi delta juke joint or B. B. King making Lucille sing in a Memphis dive–not Appalachia. I clicked the link to the Classic Appalachian Blues album and listened to all the samples. I was surprised at the range of styles and instruments. Thanks for expanding my musical horizons and revealing another of the many facets of Appalachian culture.
Jim, I’m glad to be able to return the favor! I had much the same experience the first time I heard Appalachian blues. Very different in so many ways but still great blues. A few years ago I picked up a CD Taj Mahal recorded with this person I’d never heard of, Etta Baker, and what a find that was! One of the things that makes it distinctive is that a number of the guitarists learned to play with an open, banjo-style, tuning. They learned it from parents and other older musicians by learning banjo tunes on the guitar. A related side-note on B. B. King, when he played with U2 back in the early 90s he commented to them that he didn’t play chords. I never noticed that about his playing before that. Have you ever seen Lightening in a Bottle? https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0396705/ It’s a more broad history of the blues but there’s some great stuff there!
Nice read. I had to go back and listen to the music. It came with a 40 page booklet detailing each song as well. Cephas and Wiggins played Merlefest quite a bit and were always a great act to see in person. Etta Baker, who played the Piedmont Blues for 90 years, has a statue in Morganton, NC- outside of the CoMMA, the City of Morganton Municipal Auditorium. There are plenty of local people with stories to tell about her music. Great article!!
Erik, I’m so glad you liked it! It’s awesome you got to see Cephas and Wiggins in person (I’m a bit envious I have to admit, ha). There’s nothing quite like experiencing it live. I didn’t know about the Etta Baker statue but I’m glad to hear about it. I’ll have to add it to my list of places to visit soon as that is possible again. Thanks a bunch!
Great review, Tom! Your joy and genuine appreciation of the music shined through it. I really enjoyed the musical samples you added. Also, it is good to be reminded of the great work the Smithsonian does in preserving our American musical heritage. I believe we often forget how much that institution preserves of our American story.
Thanks mom, glad you liked it! Truth is I’d forgotten just how much the Smithsonian really does until I found this album and started digging into it. There’s a lot they offer free too, both at Folkways and the main site. I remember watching The Weavers at Wolf Trap as a teenager. So much great stuff.